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How to Stop an Argument

Sometimes a simple circuit breaker is needed; here's how to deploy one.

Key points

  • Winning an argument means finding some way to make the argument more constructive than destructive.
  • When an argument is heading down a destructive path, it can help to throw in a circuit breaker.
  • The aim is to abruptly, drastically, positively change the course of the argument.
  • Four possible maneuvers: Refocus things, try levity, throw in a safe word, take a break.
Matheus Bertelli/Pexels
Source: Matheus Bertelli/Pexels

When you have an argument with someone you actually care about in some way, if your goal is to win the argument, you will lose. Failed marriages, relationships, friendships, teams, bands, and business partnerships are littered with scoreboards in which, yeah, maybe one of the people made better points than the other or others.

But when it comes to any meaningful relationship, truly winning an argument means finding some way to make the proceedings more constructive than destructive. And when you see an argument headed down a destructive path, it can help to throw in a circuit breaker.

This doesn't mean turning off all the electricity in the house. Instead, it means abruptly, drastically changing the course of the argument by either throwing in a curve ball of niceness or levity or taking a brief break with a specified time limit.

I was party to an argument the other day in which, as it proceeded, the same things were being repeated but with progressive escalation. This can happen when both sides believe that they are not being fully heard by the other. Each side can end up digging further into their entrenched position, leading the argument to get hotter and hotter. Such a dynamic can inadvertently shift the goal of the argument from trying to understand each other to one party trying to outdo the other, which can ultimately lead to a very ugly explosion of resentment.

Source: Photo by Eric Ward on Unsplash.
When you see an argument potentially headed down a destructive path, it can help to throw in a "circuit breaker."
Source: Photo by Eric Ward on Unsplash.

What changed the progression of that argument was a 10-minute break. During that break, I took out the trash, literally and figuratively.

The physical activity of hauling several garbage cans gave me the opportunity to wonder, "Why are we even having this argument when we should be on the same page?" and ponder how best to approach things in a less-charged manner when I returned. When I did return, the other person's tone had dramatically positively changed, which was positively great. This allowed us to talk in a more "let's figure this out together" type of way and ultimately realize that we were actually hearing each other all along. The circuit breaker had apparently worked.

When you find yourself arguing with someone, try to gauge the pattern and flow of the argument. Is it clearly moving towards a better understanding of each other's viewpoints and positions? Or is it going round and round, perhaps spiraling upwards in intensity? The latter is an unstable situation and can only increase misunderstanding, especially if the greater intensity leads one side or both sides to say things that they may end up regretting. When you detect such a cycle, throw in a circuit breaker to interrupt the it.

Source: Photo by Zulaima Rakhmatiar from Pexels.
There are four types of "circuit breakers" that you can use.
Source: Photo by Zulaima Rakhmatiar from Pexels.

One type of circuit breaker is to simply say something like, "Look, I just want to understand what you are saying. So let's focus on that. Tell me what you want me to do and say." This can be tough when the other person has said something hurtful. But assume that the other person didn't really mean to say such a thing and could have been speaking out of heightened emotion. When you focus on listening, you dramatically raise the chances that the other person will feel heard.

A second type of circuit breaker is to say or do something lighthearted and silly. This can be making a joke, complimenting the other person, or singing a song like "I Touch Myself" by the Divinyls. Of course, make it clear that you are not mocking the other person or discounting their feelings. Singing "Stupid Hoe" by Nicki Minaj or "Cry Me A River" by Justin Timberlake is probably not going to help things unless both of you already have an affinity towards the song.

A third type of circuit breaker is a safe word. Choose a safe word that is clear to both of you and won't be mistaken for something else. For example, "f- you" would not be a good pair of safe words. There has to be a standing agreement , made in advance, that the safe word means hitting pause and rethinking what's going on for at least a second.

Speaking of pause, the final type of circuit breaker is a well-defined break in the action for a specified amount of time. It has to have a clearly articulated time limit that's not so long that uncertainty and resentment begin to stew. A two-year pause, for example, would probably be too long. The other person cannot feel that you are simply running away from the argument or trying to kick the can down the road. The other person can't feel that you may be ghosting them, either.

A circuit breaker can be very effective, assuming that both sides are genuinely interested in preserving the relationship, whether it's personal or professional. It will help remind both sides that the goal of the argument is to better understand each other and not win some kind of trophy. When you can agree in advance what circuit breakers to use, you could prevent arguments from breaking the most important trophy of them all: your relationship with each other.

More from Bruce Y. Lee M.D., M.B.A.
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